It was on May the thirteenth that events took a turn for the Mortale family. They had been going about their usual Saturday morning business. Mildred, the youngest child—fourteen years of age come autumn—had already experienced a personally unpleasant morning. She had been standing over Mortem’s grave, having just finished inscribing a humble homemade headstone, when the telephone rang with the news. She was summoned inside immediately, without even the chance to place flowers over the delicate patch of newly disturbed soil. After a few solemn, meditative moments to take in the somber news, the Mortale family hailed a carriage to their destination.
The sickroom was draped in the thickness of grief. Mildred stood silently beside her mother as Aunt Ola wailed on and on about the tremendous tragedy, how her beautiful Lucia had been untroubled the moment she had passed, having found peace at last after a long, tumultuous few days of the sinister sickness that had swept across the city that summer, what the people were calling “the devil’s disease.” All the while, Mildred’s eyes drifted toward the bed. Lucia hadn’t been the kindest of cousins. She and Lucia were hardly what one would call close, but to see her like this—stiff and pale grey like a statue—awakened pity in her. As Aunt Ola made her way around the room, smothering everyone in tear-stained hugs and muffled sniffs, Mildred stole one last glance down at Lucia. However snubbing, impetuous, rude, and snobbish she had been, even Lucia hadn’t been able to outwit it—sickness had defeated even her in the end. Aunt Ola and Uncle Edmund’s large fortune hadn’t been able to do a thing.
The ride back home was just as quiet and stifling as the trip preceding. Mildred, her hands neatly folded on her lap, observed the passing scenery with a breath of newfound gratitude for her life. Her sister, Morgan, had been the only one in the family to cry
during the visit. She’d been the one closest to Lucia amongst the Mortale siblings—most likely because of their shared ego and snippiness. Morgan delicately dabbed a glistening eye with a white lace-edged handkerchief.
When, at last, the carriage pulled up alongside the curb in front of the Mortale home, the family shuffled out and silently made their way inside. Coats and hats were hung on the coat rack by the door, gloves were slipped off, and sighs were released. Everyone went about their separate ways, bound for yet another dull and senseless day indoors.
Since the advent of the Yellow Fever, Mother prohibited anyone in the household from stepping outside for longer than the measure of a few heartbeats, for the adamant fear of the disease in the air being absorbed into any of her children’s fragile bodies. (They were allowed allotted time in the garden in the backyard, but that mostly consisted of squirrel-watching with the occasional game of spider-racing, a game Mildred’s brother Marley had invented.)
So the Mortale residence remained unnervingly silent for the remainder of the afternoon, with the exception of the extremely loud hour that Mother spent on the telephone, jabbering to all and any acquaintance she could about the family tragedy. The telephone was something that Father had resisted installing; he was adamantly against anything “modern”, not for political or religious reasons, but because the growing popularity of electric lights and technology in homes had rendered his kerosene lamp and candle company increasingly obsolete.
“I know, it’s the most horrible thing,” Mother sighed into the speaker. “None of us would have ever anticipated the disease to infect ourfamily…” She twisted the telephone’s cord around a finger as she tilted her head and looked pleasantly bored with her friend’s response.
Mildred, who sat perched on the bottom step of the staircase, balancing her chin on her fist, managed to nearly escape her mother’s obnoxious prattling, her eyes slowly and sleepily fluttering closed—but they just as soon popped right open again when she heard her name uttered.
“Oh, yes, Mildred is going to be alright,” Mother said, with great indifference. “Just the same as always, you know…”
Whatever she meant to clarify about this statement, Mildred would never know, because at that instant, a tremendous BOOM emanated from the basement. Mother, startled from the sudden noise (or perhaps, as Mildred suspected, merely surprised that something could possibly be louder than she was), jumped with a shriek, her hands still clutching the telephone cord, causing an even more terrible shock for her when the phone was ripped directly from the wall by the force of her own sudden, jerking movement. As she gasped in disbelief at the gaping hole in the wall, the telephone fixture dangling pathetically from the wallpaper, the basement door flung open, revealing Marley, sooty and sputtering.
“What did you do?” Mother screeched angrily, her face glowing a nice shade of pink.
Marley shrugged, tugging off a pair of gloves with quick precision. Before any more interrogations could occur, he stole up the stairs, sending a cloud of dark, fine dust (or, at least, what she suspected to be dust) into Mildred’s face when he passed her.
“I can’t believeit,” Mother mumbled exasperatedly as she stared in horror at the limp telephone cord coiled around her fingers. Mildred wouldn’t allow herself to laugh at the misfortune, but she smiled to herself, only because she was out of range of Mother’s sight.
Dinner that evening was extraordinarily uncomfortable. Marley didn’t speak a word, hardly even glancing up from his plate, on which he absentmindedly scraped around bits of food with his fork. It had taken him hours to scrub away the mysterious post-explosive debris, and even still, smudges were visible here and there. No one had dared ask him what had happened and, of course, none of them could enter the basement to see for themselves. The basement had been Marley’s personal workspace and domain for years and was kept secure with a myriad of strategically placed locks and chains.
Mother sat stiff-backed with pursed lips, grieving over the death of the telephone. Morgan was her usual silently reserved self. Mildred attempted to lighten up the mood by smiling warmly in Father’s direction. His melancholy mood persisted. In Mildred’s experience, his silence was far worse than rage. Father’s silence meant that he was deeply submerged in a pensive, solemn state, one that, unlike anger, failed to subside quickly. Moods like this went on for days at a time. When he was like this, Father wouldn’t have cared if Marley had blown the house to bits of rubble.
The distasteful feeling that night was only elevated by another sample of Mother’s so-called “experimental cooking”. Mildred poked at her dinner, barely taking a bite of what she could hardly identify as a food. Since Father’s business had taken a toll for the worse, they’d had to let go of their longtime household staff.
It had been a rough start to the spring. Not long after Father drudgingly announced to his family that his store had declared bankruptcy, the home began to become stripped of familiar things. Mildred watched from the upstairs foyer while, for a week, strange men marched in and out of the house, taking with them cabinets and armoires, sculptures and oil paintings, drawers of silverware and sets of china teacups. They unscrewed the chandelier from the foyer ceiling and emptied the guest bedroom until all that was left was floor, walls, and a lonely window. Mother sniffled as she packed away mounds of clothing and party dresses and jewelry for auction. The servants left soon after, all three housemaids, butler, and cook. They looked so dismal, shuffling out the door all in a row, like a pitiful parade, waving their good-byes in dejected silence.
“All of our old money, gone,” Mother had cried. Mildred didn’t ask what she meant.
The house was now discomforting to Mildred. The rooms were too full of echoes, and she could feel the emptiness as if it were a physical thing. Mother had insisted on keeping a few of the old paintings, which still dotted the house. And there was the family photograph that had been taken in the previous spring, which hung above the fireplace in the drawing room. The five people in the portrait appeared reserved and self-assured, none having a suspicion of what would happen over the course of a year.
Father cleared his throat and spoke his first words of the day. “What happened to that old cat…uh, what was his name again? ...Oh, never mind. Anyway, I haven’t seen him around much lately.”
Mildred looked up and said, sorrowfully, “He’s—”
“Dead,” blurted Marley.
Father’s brows knit with concern. “When and how did this happen?”
“This morning,” Mildred sighed, pushing around some shriveled peas on her plate. “Well, at least that’s when I found him. I haven’t the slightest idea what happened. I buried him out in the front garden this morning, just before we left.”
Mother’s head perked up, her eyes wide in horror. “The front garden? Why would you do such a thing? Please tell me you didn’t upset the tulips!”
“It’s nicer than the backyard’s garden,” Mildred remarked.
“That’s a shame,” Father said, ignoring any concerns about gardens and shaking his head slowly. “He was a good cat.”
“Yes. And only still a baby, practically,” Mildred added. “One year old, in June.”
“That’s not much of a baby age in cat years,” Marley mumbled.
“Oh, you shut up!” Mildred spat. Marley winced as a pea flew off her fork and into his direction.
“Mortem was a fine pet, and he will not be forgotten,” Mother closed the pending dispute rather sternly, giving both Mildred and Marley wary glances.
“Well,” sighed Father, standing from his place, his dinner untouched, “I’ll be back to my work now. If anyone wants me, I’ll be in the study, as always.”
With these as his final words, he turned at once and went directly down the hall. Father spent most of his time in the study when he was in his quiet moods, poring over books and documents. He had once wanted to study to become a doctor, but instead inherited the family business—which, as it had obviously failed, only added more to his melancholy spells. Now, in the advent of the fever, he wished he’d become a doctor, after all.
After the table had been cleared, Mildred escaped the tension and headed outside. Mother called after her to inquire where she was going, but she simply ignored the questions and ran out of the house, letting the door slam behind her and proceeding directly to Mortem’s gravesite. However, the moment she reached her pet’s resting place, a cold feeling charged through her—dirt was strewn everywhere, leaving an ugly hole in the garden. Mother would be horrified.
Worst of all, the grey stone marker she’d so lovingly made had been simply thrown aside into a bed of daisies (thank goodnessthey weren’t the tulips). Beside herself in confusion, Mildred knelt to the newly unearthed burial site and tried to steady her breathing. After just a few moments, however, her befuddlement was very quickly replaced with a raging realization.
“Where is he?” Mildred bellowed as she rushed inside, marching pointedly toward Marley, who was seated studiously at the drawing room desk, furiously scribbling away into a tattered notebook opened to a page filled with various complicated diagrams and sketches.
“Are you referring to Mortem, perhaps?”
“I am,” Mildred replied, her hands on her hips.
Marley paused his pen and glanced upwards. “Do you wish to see him?”
Mildred’s stomach lurched suddenly, a reel of gruesome images flashing in her mind. “What have you done to him?”
“Nothing much, yet,” Marley shrugged.
“What are you planningon doing to him?” Mildred screeched, her pulse quickening as she tried to repel various ideas as to what might become of the carcass in Marley’s eagerly gloved hands. Ever since he was a small child, Marley had a fascination with dead things—and, once he was older, dissecting them as well. Mother had been appalled and disgusted by this behavior but Father, who possessed a certain passion for the medical and anatomical himself, encouraged Marley’s hobbies in hopes of him pursuing a future medical career. Mildred had grown to think that she was the only one who knew for certain that Marley’s intentions weren’t purely for educational purposes (or at least that she was the only one not in denial of it).
“Do you not wish to know the cause of his death?” Marley inquired.
Mildred thought with hesitant curiosity about Mortem’s tragic ending. But the stronger idea of her much-loved pet being sliced open and who knows what else sent an anxious and disgusted shiver down her spine. She stood a little taller, lifted up her chin, and crossed her arms in defiant confidence. “No.”
“No?” Marley raised a brow. “Hm. Alright, then,” and then, grumbled to himself, “What am I going to do with him now?”
“Leave him alone in peace, like he was before you so rudely interrupted!” quipped Mildred, turning straight for the basement door, enraged enough to beat down the door herself, chains and all.
Marley jumped up from his chair and reached the door just before Mildred did. He flattened himself against the wooden door. “I’ll get him. Stay here.”
“Fine,” Mildred sighed. “But be quick about it.”
Straightaway—after quickly unlocking the locks with a key he procured from his pocket—Marley turned and bolted behind the door into the basement. There was a bit of rummaging clatter from below, which was slightly concerning to Mildred, but a few minutes later Marley reappeared at the top of the steps with a white cloth-covered, cat-shaped lump in his arms.
“Alright,” he said, quite out of breath, kicking the door shut behind him. “How about we have a proper burial?”
“Really?” Mildred’s spirits lifted a bit; it had been a while since Marley had voluntarily done a nice thing for her. Although this struck her as somewhat suspicious, she accepted the offer with gratitude.
They headed outdoors. Marley placed the body carefully into the crevice in the soil, and both stood with hands folded neatly before them. Marley cleared his throat and started his speech while Mildred gently sprinkled catnip over the sheeted Mortem.
“Mortem was a beloved feline. He was born on…”
“June the eighth.”
“…June the eighth, and was especially adored by Mildred Mortale, who made sure he always had his favorite toys and foods, and who always kept his coat perfectly shiny and parasite-free. Basically, she spoiled him and overfed him, but we’ll overlook those facts in this sad moment. He met an unfortunate early fate on May the twelfth, hardly a year old. All of the members of the family will miss him dearly.”
“I just want to have one last look at him, you know, before I say good-bye,” Mildred said. She bent down and her fingers had hardly braised the white cloth when they were slapped away.
“What are you doing?” she gasped.
Marley’s gaze averted Mildred’s disdainful stare. “You don’t want to remember him this way, Mildred. It’ll give you nightmares, I’m sure of it.”
Mildred avoided Marley’s recommendation and, as quickly as she could, lifted away the cloth. It wasn’t Mortem who lie under the sheets, after all; it was another cat entirely, this one white and grey, and in a quite gruesome state.
“Marley!” Mildred shrieked, hardly able to contain her disgust. “Is this Mrs. Pepperman’s missing cat?”
Mrs. Pepperman was the well-meaning but vastly disoriented elderly lady who lived next door. Her husband had died ages ago, and no one really knew a thing about him, except that he was, according to the local gossip, murdered by Mrs. Pepperman. The lady’s only constant in her life was her old and just as disconcerting cat, Salty, who’d gone missing nearly a month ago. Mrs. Pepperman hadn’t been seen since.
“Uh, yes,” Marley answered after a bit.
“Salty practically came to me,” Marley said.
“Yes, of course.” Mildred shook her head in disbelief.
“No, she did, I can assure you,” Marley objected. “I was sitting just here, on the front porch, one afternoon, sketching, and she came over to me.”
“What did you do to her, then?” Mildred inferred.
“Nothing, honestly,” Marley continued. “She just came over, gave a soft meow, and then—just like that—she dropped dead at my feet. I didn’t want to break Mrs. Pepperman’s poor, fragile heart, so I just took Salty downstairs and ran a few tests on her. I didn’t even have to harm her one bit.”
Although sneaky and suspicious, Mildred had never known Marley to lie outright. She nodded slowly, trying to accept this bizarre tale. “So I guess I don’t want to know what you’ve already done to Mortem.”
“You’d be best off not to,” Marley replied, and, with one lingering glance at the grave in the ground, walked away.
It was about six o’clock when the doorbell rang, followed by a set of impatient knocks. Mother rushed to the door as quickly as she could. Mildred, who sat in her usual place at the bottom of the staircase, was in the ideal spot to see this mysterious late evening visitor, who, once the door had been swung open, turned out to be Aunt Ola, looking gloomy as ever.
“Hello, Maria.” Aunt Ola greeted Mother with a nod, wrapping her shawl closer to her body to shield herself from the vengeful wind that the impending storm had whipped up outside.
“Please, step inside,” Mother insisted, opening the door a bit wider. “The air is giving me chills just standing here.”
Aunt Ola gave a weak smile and stepped into the foyer. Mother gently closed the heavy front door, blocking out the vicious wind.
“Would you like to sit down?” Mother asked, motioning toward a chair in the nearby drawing room. Silently, the two women strolled to the room. Aunt Ola lowered herself into a chair, anxiously scanning the scant décor. Mildred crept from her stair and walked as quietly as she could to a perfect eavesdropping place against the nearest wall.
“What is it, Ola?” Mother inquired. “You seem…on edge.”
“I am, a little,” Aunt Ola replied. “You see, with all of the medical bills from Lucia’s…condition, I’m afraid we’re in a bit of financial crisis.”
“Ola!” Mother gasped, a hand flying to clutch her heart. “To speak of money! Really, the audacity of such social ills!”
“I know,” Aunt Ola sighed. “You know I would never even entertain talk of the idea, but it’s a serious situation.”
“What is it that you need?” Mother inquired.
“We need to plan a memorial service for Lucia,” Aunt Ola began. “We would host it at our house, except we fear the fever still lurks in the air. We’ve been sleeping at the neighbors.”
Mother was silent.
“Did anyone tell you that you have such a lovelydrawing room?” Aunt Ola sighed wistfully, standing up and strolling to the wide window. “Such a nice, large window…good for displayingthings…”
“You want to hold a service for Lucia here?” Mother caught on to Aunt Ola’s poorly discreet suggestion.
Aunt Ola turned slowly, a small, nervous smile on her face. “Would you allow it? Please?”
Mother was flabbergasted. “Well, I…I suppose it would be alright. However, hosting things like this is a very serious occasion.”
“Oh, yes, of course!” Aunt Ola exclaimed, clasping her hands together excitedly. After a moment, however, her smiled faded and a look of concern flooded her face. She then dropped her voice. “Of course, we are aware of your…situation, but if we combine our resources, Lucia will receive what she deserves. Before we move forward, however, shouldn’t you talk with Emerson?”
“He won’t care,” Mother answered brusquely. “All he does is mope around all day in his study, anyhow. He probably won’t even know that anyone is visiting.”
“Oh, thank you, Maria!” Aunt Ola leaped toward Mother and enveloped her in a stifling hug. Mother politely returned the embrace, and then broke away and stiffened her posture.
“You are family, and we will help you in your time of need,” Mother said. “To do anything less would be inconceivable.”
Heart pounding, Mildred stole away up the stairs. She usually had the good sense to not interrupt Morgan when her room door was
shut, as it meant she was spending time writing or reading. However, at this moment, she was bursting to tell of the things she’d overheard. She didn’t bother with any knocking and pushed the door open.
She stepped into Morgan’s perfectly kept-after bedroom. The bedspread had not a single wrinkle, the wooden floor was polished and swept, and the pale blue window curtains were lightly fluttering in the evening breeze from the half-open window. Morgan sat primly at her desk chair, writing neatly onto a sheet of cream-colored stationary.
“What is it, Mildred?” she asked monotonously, pen still moving at an immeasurable pace.
“Morgan,” Mildred began, swaying from the tip of her toes to the heels of her feet, “I’ve just overheard Mother talking to Aunt Ola, in the—”
Morgan turned sharply to face Mildred, her dark and expressive eyebrows rising in an appalled manner. “Do you mean to say that you were eavesdropping?”
“I suppose, but that hardly matters,” Mildred said, waving away her possible misdemeanor. She jumped straight into the matter. “Aunt Ola just came visiting. We’re going to hold a wake for Lucia in the drawing room.”
Morgan lowered her pen to the desktop and looked at Mildred curiously. “Millie, it is none of your business to know of such a thing—if it is true—until either Mother or Father informs us of the matter. Now go back to…whatever it is you spend your time doing.”
Mildred, although she was aware that it was a childish thing to do, stomped her foot on Morgan’s precisely polished floor. She hoped that it left an unseemly mark on the wood. “You never care about a thing I tell you.”
“Mildred, you know I’d love to chat with you, but I’m going to remind you again not to bother me at this hour, especially not with banal news like this,” Morgan said, writing away again.
Flustered, Mildred turned and marched out of Morgan’s room, not bothering to close the door or ask what “banal” meant.
Before she even had a second to ponder where she was going to go next, she nearly collided directly into Marley.
“What are you doing?” he rolled his eyes.
“Why do you care?” Mildred snarled.
Marley crossed his arms and evaluated her with meticulous, squinted eyes. Then he concluded, “You were telling Morgan about Aunt Ola’s request about Lucia, is that it?”
Mildred huffed. “How could you know that?”
Marley shrugged. He glanced upon his watch. “Oh, look at that. I need to do something in the lab. Catch you later.”
He hurried past Mildred and down the stairs.
It was a cool night, perfect for sleeping—but Mildred couldn’t keep her eyes shut. She was staring at the ceiling, clutching the covers close to her chest, and thinking about everything she’d seen and heard that day. She found that she’d been doing this more and more lately, and when Mother asked every day why the marks underneath Mildred’s eyes were growing darker and darker, she merely put the
blame on the stifling heat. Tonight, that was hardly a fair reason. A steady breeze swept through Mildred’s open window, fragrant with the aftermath of the evening’s storm.
She sank deeper under the covers and had begun to finally relax when her foot nudged something soft and cool near the end of her bed. For some reason inexplicable at first, this frightened and confused her, and she quickly scooted against her pillows, drawing her feet underneath her. Her head swimming in the dark, she searched for a reason for her anxiety. Then she came to a stunning realization—Mortem was dead, but presently it felt like he was in his favorite spot, nestled at her feet.
“Mortem?” Mildred whispered softly. She reached with shaking hands to the small black shape on the bed. Just before her fingers brushed Mortem’s fur, he lifted his head and blinked his big yellow eyes at Mildred sleepily, if not confusedly.
Mildred caught her breath and examined the possibilities (or, rather, the impossibilities). She wondered briefly if this was Marley’s doing—that he had somehow resurrected the cat. But, taking another glance at Mortem in the moonlight—who was now casually licking a paw—she dismissed the idea. Even Marley, clever as he was, didn’t have the ability to bring life back into dead.
This morning Mortem had been dead. He had been stiff and cold and without a heartbeat. She had placed him in the ground and buried him (that is, before Marley dug him out). But she was also sure that Mortem was right in front of her eyes, breathing and blinking and heart beating—at least, she assumed.
Mildred leaned forward, shaking and cautious, and laid her head against Mortem’s side. She used to do this some nights, listening to the faint heartbeats and feeling the animal’s chest rise and fall with breath, fascinated and in awe of the life in the small creature. Tonight, however, there were no heartbeats, no gentle breaths. There were no signs of life. Yet, Mortem was acting very alive.
“What happened to you, Mortem?” Mildred whispered, half full of grief and half full of hope as she stroked the cat’s back. A gentle purr had begun in its throat. She sighed and then leaned back
on her pillows. Mortem traipsed across the mattress and then settled by Mildred’s side.
She stared up at the ceiling again and thought. She thought about how strange life seemed lately, and how distant she felt from everything in it. She thought about Father in his study, reading medical texts, and Marley in the basement, experimenting and doing who knew what else, and Morgan in her room, writing and studying, and how she didn’t have a single thing like they did, something that kept her thoughts interesting and her afternoons content. Even Mother had her telephone chatting and experimental cooking, no matter how much of a nuisance these things were to others.
She was merely “Millie”, as her siblings so affectionately patronized her, always sitting at the bottom of the staircase, melancholy and useless.
Sometime, in the midst of all these thoughts, she drifted into sleep.